Monday, December 31, 2012

Not the End of the World

It's hard to believe that the last day of 2012 is upon us (but not hard to believe the world didn't end on the 21st of December) as once again it seems like it was just yesterday that I was saying this about 2011.  I've had another big year this year, though it was hard to remember it all with such a long stint (relatively, for me) in Yemen still so fresh in my memory. 

The year started out with what was supposed to be 2 months in Oxford, but was only allowed to be 2 weeks, but that was perfect timing for me to attend Chaz's birthday party. I headed back to Nairobi to continue my work remotely from there, and had a great time catching up with old friends and going on the best Sunday drive ever. And then came March, when I was sent to Juba, South Sudan where it was a very hot and slow scale-up response that wasn't particularly eventful while I was there. Getting out of Juba was certainly a mission though! 

It was perfect timing leaving when I did as I was able to join my best mate on her birthday trip to Japan, and finally see the cherry blossoms. Super happy fun times were definitely had! Not long after my return from Japan we welcomed Holly into our family, and boy have we had some good times since then! 

In May it was a long trip from home to the UK for the annual humanitarian forum we have, but again, excellent timing saw me able to attend another friend's birthday party, with a stop at Stonehenge on the way. It was great to catch up with my fellow roving colleagues who came from all over the world, and also get a bit of work done in Oxford as well. I was really happy to take a colleague up on her offer to come and visit in the Isle of Skye (off the north west of Scotland) as I was already in the neighbourhood, and finally got to see Puffins (and a Highland Cow or two!) 

After another brief stint at home waiting for my visa, my epic time in Yemen began in early July. There was a lot to get my head around, but time enough to do it as our scale-up was only just beginning. When I wrote my first sitrep we had about 25,000 beneficiaries; when I left that number was 328,000. It was a fantastic experience to see a programme grow, particularly a programme that had never experienced the scale of the crisis we were in the midst of, and the team handled everything so impressively. Highlights from Yemen included my first trip to the Old City in Sana'a, turning 30 a few weeks after arriving and thanks to wonderful housemates I had a wonderful party thrown for me, the afternoons I spent playing with the resident fluffies, the weekly volleyball games with super fit bodyguards, finally getting out to our field programme in Aden for a couple of days and getting to talk to beneficiaries, volunteers and our partner staff.

A big highlight was the opportunity to get out of Sana'a for a day trip to Thula and Kawkaban, and it was an excellent chance to see how incredibly scenic Yemen is and how there are so much potential for tourism. I also had the chance the get back to Beirut for my R&R, and catch up with old friends and even made a new one. The last six weeks of my deployment were really busy, and I spent the last few weeks working frantically on a malnutrition project, which got me back out to the field offices in Hodeidah and Hajja, and it was really interesting talking to beneficiaries about their practices relating to water, sanitation, hygiene and food. The results were quite astounding to me as a non-technical person, and I think pretty surprising for my colleagues as well. It was tough for me to leave Yemen, as I was working within a great team, I made a lot of good friends and Sana'a was a pretty great place to live most of the time. 

Having all of December off in Australia has been wonderful, though perhaps not quite as relaxing as I expected. Amidst putting in some good hammock time, there was a trip to Woollongong to meet a new baby (who is super cute), a trip to Melbourne for one night to surprise my oldest friend at her birthday party (secret mission: success), a lovely couple of days of Christmas full of eating, eating and more eating, and then another trip to Melbourne for the annual Duckfest (i.e. eating a lot of Peking Duck) with my crew from Bangladesh. 

So looking back, it's been another pretty fantastic year. After the insanity of last year, I was determined to actually take a couple of breaks this year as well as have a bit of time at home, and I'm really glad that I managed to do that as planned. While it was still a big year, it wasn't quite as action packed as 2011, and  I'm reminded again and again of how lucky I am to have the job I do, the life I lead, and the family and friends I have who continue to be awesome. 

2013 starts off for me with a deployment to Beirut to support the response for Syrian refugees - at this stage I don't know how long I'll be there for, but any times spent in Beirut are good times! I hope that 2013 brings even more joy and good fortune to us all...


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Very busy

I've been home for almost two weeks now, and it's been pretty stressful...
I'm sure you can understand why I haven't posted much!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A lot to catch up - Hajja Edition

I really wanted to write about my adventures in Hajja, but it's 4:38pm and I clicked send on my malnutrition project about 20 minutes ago and am completely drained. Relieved, but drained. So I'm going to let most of these pictures do the talking for themselves.

The bustling metropolis of Haradh, from the balcony of the "Duby Nights" hotel
Colleagues cooking up a delicious dinner each and  every night
See what I mean!

School girls fascinated by M and myself...but mostly M!
Waiting for the cash distribution to start
First man of the day to receive cash  
This is Amin. He's five, malnourished and blind.

Happier kids hanging around the distribution (fair enough, it was at their school!)
M and I try to hide from all the sand
Women receiving hygiene messages before a cash distribution in Abss District (I love how colourful they are)
There's nothing much more fun than sitting on a motorbike and making broom broom noises, as his smile clearly indicates

Pretty pathetic looking donkling
Shueeya was so welcoming to us, especially after we told her she was a cash beneficiary - she hadn't been told!
I had to organise a secret project for Oxford and these guys were some of the most willing participants. Such fun!

I'm so glad I had the opportunity to get out to some of the field sites to spend more time with my colleagues and the people we're working for! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A lot to catch up on - Hodeidah Edition

Wow, it's taken me a long time to get around to writing about my recent field trip to Al Hodeidah and Hajja Governorates. I'm really not sure where to begin, as I've written so much about them for my work, I'm not sure how much more I can write!

So I guess I'll just start writing and see where we end up...The purpose of my trip was to interview and document the beliefs and practices around key issues so over time they can be looked at to see what the links to malnutrition are. My technical colleauges in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods (EFSL) developed a list of questions that they were interested in finding out the answers to. These included questions around water usage and treatment, defecation, hand washing, and solid waste disposal on the WASH side, and breastfeeding, dietary diversity and income generation on the EFSL side.

A public health colleague M, who's from Sudan was tasked to work with me on it, and it was great to not only have a native speaker to do the interviewing, but also a technical person who could explain certain things to me (like what bilharziasis is). As we had cash distributions underway in both Hodeidah and Hajja that's where we set off to find people to interview. We spoke to 15 women over five days in the field, and the vast majority of them are really struggling: with the health of their families, with finding income, with poor sanitation and hygiene - all the things I, and I assume most of the people reading this take for granted.

We started at a cash distribution in Al Shokna district. The distributions are run from schools, and were relatively orderly in Hodeidah. Even the donkeys were well behaved.

After interviewing a couple of women at the distribution, we ventured out to a nearby village where we were introduced to Hind and her family. Hind is only 18, her son is 2 years 4 months, and her malnourished daughter is 14 months. She says her baby doesn't like to eat, and they tried to feed her the Plumpynut (a high protein paste designed to treat malnutrition) that they were given at a clinic, but she doesn't like it so they give it to her older brother. "Our daughter is sick from God. We boil water so there is no contamination, we give her the food we get from the health clinic and spend most of our money on her, but God chooses that she continues to be sick." With the money they received from Oxfam they were planning to repay some of the debts incurred by the medical expenses, and buy some chicken. They haven't been able to afford any meat in a long time.   

We spoke with Noura, whose 10 month old baby is malnourished. They've had to cancel appointments for his treatment recently because they can't afford either the cost of the treatment, or the transport to get to the clinic. Her husband, Mahfouz (below) spends most of the year working in Saudi Arabia to earn more money to support his family. Unfortunately for this family, they weren't being supported by Oxfam, or the government's Social Welfare Fund.
 In total we spoke to six families in Hodeidah, and there was quite a range of good and bad practices, and interesting beliefs. I was very interested in the beliefs around colostrum, some women thought that it causes diarrhoea and vomiting, one woman said it was stale, spoiled milk that needs to be thrown away. Another woman told us that if you breastfeed for too long it will firstly cause illiteracy in the child, and if it continues, eventually death. There's obviously a huge need for education.

After long days in the field it's nice to unwind with colleagues and get to know them better. The international women share a house and are all from East Africa. They invited me over one night and produced a delectable feast and entertaining conversation and it was lovely getting to know them all a bit better. Another night, I went out with some of the gents, who are all from South Asia. We went back to the fish restaurant I'd been taken to last time, and this is what it looked like when we were done.
Sometimes it's hard to reconcile eating so much when you've spent the day with people who have close to nothing. I've written before about the afternoon I spent in a malnutrition clinic in Pakistan and how difficult that was, and this was no different. What we can hope for is the cash that Oxfam is providing to over 100,000 people in Hodeidah will go some way to alleviate their current situations.

I'll write about the Hajja part of my trip at a later point.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Phone photos - food edition

Here are a few photos to tide you over until the good stuff comes - I'm heading back out to our field programmes tomorrow for 10 days and will actually get out of the office this time which is very exciting - I took these with my crappy Nokia phone, so don't expect much.

Firstly, around Halloween I was invited to a fantastic dinner, which featured a march of olive and carrot fantastic are they!!
A close second were the spidery devilled eggs (someone cruelly pointed out that the spiders were missing some legs - but frankly, anyone who chops up olives and artfully arranges them on eggs is a hero of mine!
Finally, I spotted this sign at the cash register at the supermarket the other day - i.e. a couple of months after Ramadan...
probably could've used some after eating so many penguins and spiders!!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

City Max to the Max

A friend had his birthday on Thursday, and decided the best possible theme for his party would be City Max style. City Max is a large clothing shop not too far from where we live, and I'd heard stories about the outrageousness of the clothing but hadn't made it there myself before. This all changed as four of us went to find our outfits. We entertained ourselves in the men's section for ages, finding hilarious t-shirts and belt buckles, but then E and I hurried upstairs to check out the women's wear. Wow. The dresses get worn to wedding ceremonies (women and men celebrate separately) and apparently these are good occassions for potential mothers-in-law to scope out potential brides for their everybody wants to look their best.

We spent some time rummaging through the abaya racks, as we both needed plain abayas, and suddenly the guys were there and I was forced to make a decision in a very short space of time. Of course, there are no changing rooms, so I just grabbed a dress (for the princely sum of $7.50) and hoped that it would fit.

So this is what I looked like at the start of Thursday night (abayas are really handy for covering up inappropriate attire)...
 I couldn't manage to take a stable photo.

And this is the after shot:
Probably wouldn't look too out of place on the Gold Coast wearing this huh!! Now, you were already pretty impressed with the leopard print, and the cape...but there was an extra special little touch on the bodice:
Now, normally I would be horrified if someone turned up to a party wearing the same thing as me, but thankfully, a lovely German girl had bought the same dress is a different colour scheme so it wasn't too bad. I even shelled out $10 for a pair of wedges that had leopard print on the wedge, which lasted all of about 10 minutes before the ankle strap snapped!

To protect the reputations of everyone else at the party, I won't upload any other photos here, but it's safe to say there were some spectacular outfits, and a great night was had by all!

Birthday shout-out



Saturday, November 3, 2012

It's Caturday

This is the cat that lives in the embassy residence where we play volleyball. When I first arrived she was just a wee little kitten, but has obviously now turned into a cat. Before we started playing she was entertaining itself at the base of the net, rolling all over the place and attacking a bit of paper. 

 And then knew it was time to head off, prize in mouth, as it was time for us to play.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

New housemates

I've done nothing to encourage this, I swear, they just appeared out of nowhere the other day!

Safe and sound behind the razor wire!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day trip to Thula and Kawkaban

One of my colleagues organised a day trip to Thula, a UNESCO World Heritage nominated site, which is about an hour from Sana'a. It was fantastic to get out and see some of Yemen, and we all lamented that it's shame the security situation isn't conduit to tourists, because the country side is stunning. I was also excited to try out my new camera, and I think the results are pretty good. 

Our first stop before climbing up the mountain in Thula was a look at the cistern, which people use for washing and water for animals, but not for drinking, which I was very glad to hear because the water was pretty gross. 
 Our driver contemplating the gross water, and the walk ahead.
 About half way up we had a great view down over Thula
 As expected, a whole host of men presented themselves as our guides. Khaled, on the left was our chief guide. They've all learnt English (and a host of other languages) from the tourists who used to flock to Thula, but the numbers have trailed down to basically nothing over the past two years.
 Very close to the top of 600-odd steps
 Yea! Made it to the top, and wandered around an old mosque, house and just admired the view.
 There was a lot of agriculture that could be seen from the top, particularly the terraced farming (which my food security and livelihoods colleague was stoked to see)
 On the way down we almost got run over by this man and his donkeys.
 After stopping for lunch in Shebam we drove up another range to see Kawkaban.
 Pretty spectacular no?
 We wandered around for a little while, again admiring the view, when one of the group spotted this place.
 And here's another view of the town on the way down.
 All the green you can see is qat - the legal drug that (mainly) men chew as a stimulant. According to someone's twitter post yesterday, 90% of Yemen's water is used for agriculture, of which 60% of that is qat. I hadn't seen it being cultivated before and had expected it to be more bushy, but qat grows on trees.
I'm so glad I had the chance to get out and do something touristy in Yemen. I'll be stuck in Sana'a over Eid, and don't know if this stage if I'll actually get to Socotra (google it, incredible!) before I leave. My calf muscles were a bit sore this morning, and I think combined with all the squatting and lunging I did at volleyball today I'm going to find it difficult to walk tomorrow!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Heavy Heart

I can't believe I have to leave Beirut tomorrow morning. It's been a marvellous R&R, full of good friends, good food, good shopping and good times all round. 

I had 24 hours by myself before Ingebjorg arrived, and I got deliciously lost in Achrafieh (the fancy suburb we're staying in) and thankfully also managed to find my way back home to the funky little studio we'd booked. The long awaited Carly/Ingebjorg reunion was delightful and we spent our first day together strolling around Hamra. There's always plenty of interesting grafitti around the place: 
We spent Friday night and Saturday brunch with Oli and Sara and met their adorable little boy, who has the cheekiest little grin. It was great to catch up with them and find out all their news from the past 2+ years. Our old work friends Chadi and Nicole came down from Tripoli on Saturday evening, and we had a stunning sunset to enjoy with our Almazas.
Of course we missed Yassmin terribly at our reunion, so we took a bunch of photos like this to send to her:

Sunday took us to Lazy B, the most relaxing spot in Lebanon, for a day at the beach. The water was warm, the shade was ample and I had a fantastic book to read and I couldn't keep the smile off my face. 
Very smiley. 
On our night out with Chadi and Nicole we'd discovered a place called February 30. It has hands down the funkiest, most original decor I've ever seen. Yes, you are seeing that right - it's a bar stool that's a swing. 
And fire hydrant, moped, cooking pot and water bottle bar stools as well. I'd planned to go back there on my own in the daytime to better photograph the place, but unfortunately my camera died (RIP Canon) so I didn't get the great shots of the upside-down table and chairs mounted on the ceiling, or the coat hanger light bulbs that ran above the bar. 
Ingebjorg and I spent the next couple of days wandering around various neighbourhoods, checking out new bookstores and cafes and generally soaking up all the Beirut has to offer. She sadly left me on Tuesday night, so I've spent the past few days wandering around by myself, working on my novel (it's up to 20,000 words now!) and taking crappy instagram-esque shots with my stupid 'smart' phone. 

Ingebjorg had a friend who is in town for a month studying Arabic and introduced us, and it's been lovely to have a friend to go out to dinner with in the evenings. The dinner for one concept isn't really understood here, so I've been really happy to have her around to save me that embarrassment!

But now, as I sip on an Almaza, it's almost time to say goodbye. There's time for one last pizza at Marguerita's, and one last mojito at Kayan (my new favourite bar in Gemmayze). I didn't do as much shopping as I thought I would, well I've got some excellent birthday and Christmas presents sorted, but I've had such a great time. It doesn't feel like it was over two years ago that I left, and hopefully I won't have to wait that long to come back again.

Thanks Beirut for being the perfect place to reunite, unwind, dress up, dress down, eat, drink and be merry.